Zac B. Hancock
Edmund White knew the truth, and the truth was this: folks die on the Graveyard Shift.
Edmund strolled down the cluttered pathway of what had once been Main Street, which was now nothing but a shadow of its former greatness. Main Street had, once upon a time, been booming with traffic, held the thick smell of exhaust pipes, and thousands of different colors and lights that radiated from the billboards and various signs that hung over the entrances to big, towering buildings and shops. The street had been paved a pitch blackness of brilliance. The asphalt seemed to shine as rays from the sun beamed down upon it. Edmund had seen it—oh yes, many times—but he saw it no more. There was no longer a shine on the black pavement, which had dulled into a gray, cracked shadow of its former self. Nostalgia crept into his mind, but he pushed it out. He didn't have times for reminiscing and old memories. The shift starts in three hours. Let's just focus on getting a bite to eat, eh? Don't want to work the Graveyard Shift on an empty stomach.
Definitely not. The Graveyard Shift was much longer than any other; it stretched from ten o'clock that night till six o'clock the next morning. Sometimes longer. The Graveyard Shift never ended until the sun was in the sky. Richard Parker sometimes called them the "Night Crew." Edmund didn't like the sound of that though; it made the tiny hairs on his neck stand up. What would make it any different than Graveyard Shift? One would imagine that something like "Night Crew" would be much more tolerable than that of "Graveyard Shift," but, in a way, "Night Crew" was worse.
Because they come in the night. After the sun goes down.
Edmund shuddered. He flicked the tiny remains of his rolled Bugler out into a storm drain. The storm drain had molded into a sickening green and black color and was filled with trash and filth. Edmund had seen a lady down there once and it had nearly made him scream. Richard Parker often said that there were folks who lived down in the old sewer drains.
"Why would they want to live down there?" Edmund had asked.
"Don't know. Suppose they ain't got no where else to live. Once the surface starts to fill up, folks tend to go underground," Richard had said, almost smiling. His thick, cratered face reminded Edmund of the moon, and his toothless, sinister smiled often made Edmund's stomach churn. His milky white eyes were his sickest feature—they always looked around as if they could actually see something. They would stare into Edmund's green eyes as if they were digging down into his soul. Edmund hated it when Richard looked at him that way. "Like rats. They live in the sewers like rats."
"Maybe it's better down there," Edmund had replied, his own eyes fixed on the white blotches formed by the cataracts in Richard's.
"Nope. Don't think so, Ed."
"And why not?"
"Because it's always dark down there. It's always night. You know, like the Night Crew. They always work in the night," Richard said. "Like you."
"I don't like it when you call it that, Richard. I am a simple man. I just work the Graveyard Shift."
"Don't like thinkin' about em', eh?" A smirk spread across Richard's face. Edmund thought of punching him—thought of the great and triumphant sound it would make as his fist smashed through the remaining fangs that rested in Richard's black gums. Instead though, Edmund had simply walked away. He could hear Richard faintly in the distance still talking as if he were right in front of him.
The sun was retreating behind the clouds as it often did as the clock struck eight. Only two hours left until the Graveyard Shift began.
Edmund arrived at the outer gate that surrounded the city around the same time as the titanic bell tower struck eight. The once mighty rings had been reduced to just over a monster whisper. To Edmund, it sounded sickly, as if the tower itself had come down with influenza. It was a ghastly, terrible sound. A chocking sound, almost. The tower was coughing out the last few rings as Edmund took a seat on a red milk crate that leaned against a wooden walled, tin roofed shack. He slung his bag over his shoulder and onto the ground, and produced a thermal pod and a coffee mug. He poured himself a cup of coffee, and sipped on it.
The sweet smell of noodles and pork sizzling on the grill in the shack behind him made his stomach growl. Thick clouds of white smoke poured out of the small, chimney-like hole in the roof of the tin. The area around the hole had turned black and was covered with muck.
"Is it ready yet, Ahmad?" Edmund called. He could not see the small, desert dwelling man from where he sat, but he knew he was there. He had asked the question a thousand times, it seemed.
The man answered. Though he didn't know exactly what he said—he knew that it was almost finished. Edmund had come to pick up certain words and changes in Ahmad's voice, and each word and change in dialect meant something different. Edmund supposed that Ahmad had done the same thing, in fact, because though he spoke no English, he always knew what Edmund was asking.
Ahmad, Edmund supposed, had come over on the one of the big aircraft carriers many years ago. That was back when they still had gasoline and oil to burn. Now, however, there wasn't anything left to fuel the big carriers. Edmund often wondered what happened to the rest of the world's population that didn't make it on the few trips that the carrier made.
He wondered, but in the same sense he knew.
Several others were beginning to arrive. Edmund saw Henry O'Toole and Patrick Carter, both holding their thermal coffee mugs in their hands, which Edmund knew held no coffee at all, and if they did, it was very little. The gasoline may have run out years ago, but molasses had not. Nor had sugar. Rum was still very prominent. Possibly more prominent than water.
They would need all the rum they can get. It's going to be a long night.
Edmund thought this, though every night was long on the Graveyard Shift. He pondered then if he thought the same thing every night. Possibly.
Three men approached Edmund then. It was a quarter past nine. Forty-five minutes left until the shift began.
He recognized two of the men. They were Jack Hawkins and Isaac Taylor. Jack wore a plaid, long-sleeve shirt and blue jeans, and reminded Edmund of a lumberjack. Isaac wore a sweatshirt and sweatpants, both as black as his own skin. A cigarette quivered in his thick lips.
The other man—Edmund wondered if he was actually a man at all, perhaps more of a boy really—was dressed in a denim jacket with tight fitting faded blue jeans. He wore a pair of cowboy boots, brown leather. On his hip he wore an old, rustic looking six shooter. Edmund thought suddenly of Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. He hadn't seen a cowboy like this boy in many years.
Not many folks from the south had made it.
"How are you doing on this fine evening, Ed?" Jack said, sliding his fingers through his belt loops.
"As fine as I was last evening around this time, and the one before that. Fine as I'll ever be at about this time every night," Edmund said, his voice sounding slightly fearful. Even after all these years, he was still afraid. He supposed he should have gotten used to it by now—but then again, how could a person possibly get used to something like the Graveyard Shift?
"Dis is Bobby Walka'. He wants sa join us," Isaac said. He took a long drag from his cigarette, and then flicked it out. Smoke poured out of his nose and mouth, and Edmund thought for a moment how funny it would look if the smoke suddenly came out of his ears as well.
"Bobby Walker, eh?" Edmund said, taking a sip from his coffee mug. He had nearly drank the entire batch that he had brought—easily eight cups. He would need all the caffeine he could get.
"That's right, sir. I would like to join the crew," the boy said, sounding as if he was belching his southern accent upon Edmund, which sounded something like: Hell yea I wanna join ya, and I'm one hell of a cowboy too!
"Is that a fact?" Edmund asked. He was neither confrontational or amused. He stated it exactly as it sounded.
"Why yessir it is." Bobby said. Edmund's eyes went down to the six shooter, and Bobby followed his stare. "It works. I'm damn good with it, too." Edmund hadn't seen a gun in at least three years or so. Bullets disappeared about the same time as gasoline.
"How old are you, boy?" Edmund asked. He could tell by the look on Bobby's face, first frightened and then forced anger, that the boy expected the question, but was hoping it wouldn't come.
"You're too young."
"No way. You're much too young," Edmund said. He turned his attention to Isaac and Jack then. "What the hell are the two of you thinking? He isn't much more than a boy."
"He said he wanted to go, Ed. He's damn good with that little pistol too. It would help us a lot you know," Jack said. He was right, and Edmund knew it. Edmund had thought of this himself—boy, it sure would be nice to have a gun. He'd feel a lot safer.
The boy's only nineteen years old, Ed. There isn't any reason he should be working the Graveyard Shift. Hell he should be sleeping, tucked comfortably underneath his covers, dreaming about sugar plums and shit.
"Sure is, I saw em' meself. Amn good I tell ya," Isaac said.
"He shot six out of eight bottles off a ledge. Craziest damn thing I ever seen," Jack said. Edmund lowered his head for a moment. Edmund was much older than the rest of them, his early fifties. He had been working the Graveyard Shift for over ten years, much longer than any human being should ever work the Graveyard Shift.
"So what do ya say, mister?" Bobby asked, hand resting atop the wooden handle of his steel pistol. Edmund imagined the pistol had once been a magnificent thing: polished, shiny and chrome-like, much similar to the bumper of a 1971 Chevy. Edmund imagined the sound the chamber made as it revolved, a sweet, crisp click. Then, it would erupt and explode, sending flames down the barrel and then out into the night air. Edmund's father had owned a revolving pistol once, many years ago.
"If you think yourself man enough, then welcome aboard," Edmund said, his voice dropping off, sounding much as if the words pierced his innards. The boy smiled ear to ear.
"Thank you sir. I promise you won't regret it," Bobby said, and was beginning to turn away when Edmund reached out and grabbed him by the arm. Bobby whipped back around, startled. Edmund saw his hand bolt down to his side-arm.
That's a good reflex to have.
"Just one thing before you go get ready," Edmund said.
"What is it?" Bobby asked, his voice sounding suddenly shaky as he stared into the stern eyes of Edmund White. Edmund held his gaze for a moment, making sure that he gave Bobby the full effect. His gaze was menacing, terrifying, and, perhaps, terrified.
"I don't know what other folks have told you, but I know the truth. The truth is this: folks die on the Graveyard Shift."
Bobby nodded, and that was all. He walked away, his head held low. Edmund could hear the low voices of Isaac and Jack, but he did not care to hear what they had to say. The boy had the right to know, Edmund was sure of that.
The bell tower struck ten o'clock, as it always did. It screeched and screamed, and moaned and groaned as the great, rusty gears rumbling within turned. The "Night Crew," as Richard Parker called them, had already gathered around the door on the outer gate. It was the only door to the outside world in the entire city— if it could be called a city at all. Many of the men were hollering and yelling, trying to pump themselves up. Edmund supposed many of them were drunk, but that was probably better. He looked around the crowd, his eyes searching for Bobby Walker. He found him, standing quietly in the back, hand still resting atop his six shooter. The clock rang the final time and the massive steel door creaked open slowly.
The Graveyard Shift had begun.
The group of men and one boy started out the door. Edmund held a lead pipe in one hand, and wore his thick, stainless steel Bowie knife on his side. A large, black case was strapped to his back with leather straps. It was empty, but at six o'clock when the shift was over it would be filled to the brim. Every man had one of these packs strapped to their back and Edmund thought, as he often did, that they looked like soldiers marching to war.
The night air was thick and humid and Edmund suspected to be attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes, but that was only a feeling of habit. It was habit to walk outside and suddenly feel itchy from bugs. It was a habit to lay out mouse traps. All of these things were habit, but no longer normal. There were no more mosquitoes or rats or any sort of animal for that matter.
Not even the birds can live here now.
The door slammed shut behind them and Edmund saw Bobby jump. He was terrified, Edmund thought, but he should be. Oh yes— he should be. A loud ring filled the air then, and red lights began cutting through the blackness of the night. They swirled like police sirens. A loud voice followed the ringing sound, choppy and static-like.
"Alright boys, let's get this show on the road," a man in the front of the crowd said. Edmund recognized the voice as that of Thomas Fields. Thomas had been in the Graveyard Shift nearly as long as Edmund, and was a giant man with muscles that bulged out of his shirt. He carried a double-headed axe in one hand and a sledge hammer in the other. He was good with them too.
The group began their march. They started out into the open field where the grass had long since died. The dead grass was crispy and crunched under their feet as they marched.
Besides the crunching of dead grass, the air was silent. No crickets chirping. No owls hooting. Nothing.
As they ascended the hill that had become known as Dead Man's Hill they began to get their first view of their destination. Once they reached the top of the hill, they stopped for a moment, and peered over. Down below them, in the valley, was the remains of an old town. Edmund could smell the stench of rot from the hill and knew why they call it Dead Man's Hill.
Because you can smell the rotting flesh from up here.
"What's down there?" Bobby asked, his voice was nearly mute.
"Nothing, Bobby. Nothing at all," Edmund said as they started their descent.
They entered the town at a quarter till eleven. They walked down the tattered roads and past the old buildings and ruins. They stopped in what was once town square. Edmund had seen the city in all of its greatness many years ago. In the middle of town square there had been a towering, bronze statue of Lady Justice. She had a balance in one hand and a sword in the other. She had now been reduced to nothing more than ankles, but the engraving on the stone could still be read.
MAY JUSTICE PREVAIL
EST. MAY 9, 2007
The Night Crew gathered in a circle, all facing the statue. Thomas walked to the front of them, axe swung over one shoulder, sledge hammer facing the ground.
He looks like a decent leader, if we ever had one.
"Alright folks, you know what we need to do. I have a list here from Pauline at the hospital. She said that she needs several bottles of penicillin and possibly some sort of pain reliever. Winter's coming, and we'll need all the medicine we can get for the cold season. Other than that, gather the normal things. Be careful though, and meet back here at a quarter till one. We'll do a head count," Thomas said.
The Graveyard Shift was now in full swing.
The men worked monotonously, gathering any sorts of supplies they could get their hands on. Edmund gathered first several personal items that he and his family were in need of: soap, food, etc. He found most of his needs at a small corner mart. The place smelled of rotten meat, and most of the items in the store were no good anymore. He had nearly given himself a heart attack, however, as he went around the counter and found the dead clerk. There wasn't much left of the man and his head was missing.
They always take the heads.
Dried blood covered the countertop and the floor, and the man's shirt was matted and filthy. Edmund, for the first time in years, almost vomited, but managed to maintain his composure and go on about his work. He had a bad feeling about this night. Something wasn't settling in his stomach. He hadn't found a dead body in years, and that perhaps was a bad omen.
However, they met at Lady Justice at a quarter till one, and the head count turned up to be fine. No one was missing. Everything was going as planned.
They continued this routine until just about four in the morning. Edmund's pack was full to the brim, and he took a seat on the corner of an unknown street on a wooden bench that probably hadn't been used in years. He pulled out a rolled cigarette and placed it in his mouth.
"How ya doin' sir?" a voice came from behind him. He had forgotten all about Bobby, and was almost relieved to hear his voice.
"Just fine, Bobby. Just stopping to have a smoke. Want one?" Edmund asked, reaching into his shirt pocket and producing another crudely rolled cigarette. Bobby took it with a smile and then sat down beside Edmund. They sat in silence for some time, both simply enjoying a break and a good toke.
"How long you been workin' the Graveyard Shift?" Bobby asked. Edmund could tell that the silence was bothering him, and he was only making conversation to break the silence. The silence had bothered him once too as a young man. Now he welcomed the silence. It was much better than—
"Long time, I reckon," Edmund said then, cutting off his own thoughts. "What made you want to come to the Graveyard Shift?"
"Honestly? Needed some money. Friend of mine told me that they pay good out here. Got myself a new baby to support," Bobby said, and reached into his back pocket and produced a small black wallet. He flipped it open, revealing the smiling, red face of a newborn. "Name's Douglas. Douglas Walker the second, after my father." Edmund nodded and forced a smile to his lips.
"He's a pretty boy."
"Sure is. I figured it only appropriate to name him after pops. He died when I was real little when, well you know— when the whole world went ape shit."
"Something like that."
"Yep, somethin' like that. Anyway, I thought maybe I could live up to his good name, seein' how he fought against the things and all," Bobby said, leaning back against the bench with his head held proudly in the sky.
"Your father was in the army?"
"Yessir. He fought good too, I hear. My momma always said he was a good man. I miss him sometimes, you know, even though I never met him," Bobby said, suddenly saddened. Edmund related to Bobby then, for the first time since they met. He had lost his own mother when, as Bobby put it, "the world went ape shit." He hadn't known her much either, though he wished he would've. His father and mother divorced when he was very young, and his father had told him that his mother was a bad woman and didn't deserve a sweet boy like Edmund. Edmund had always agreed and laughed, but now he wished he would have gone and seen her. Even if she was a mean old codger like his father always said, he would still liked to have met her.
Time passed slow as it always did on the Graveyard Shift, but five o'clock finally rolled around. The first dew was settling, but the sun was still hidden behind the moon and the sky was still just as black as it was at midnight.
They began their march back to the city, packs full of supplies, around a quarter after five. Thomas led the group and Edmund and Bobby took up the rear. Bobby's nerves had calmed greatly since the shift had began, and Edmund was happy for it. It had been a successful trip, nothing bad or out of the ordinary had happened—
Except for the dead clerk.
Edmund hadn't told anyone about the dead clerk. He didn't figure he needed to. There was no use in stirring up—
The group stopped cold in their tracks.
The group began frantically looking around, weapons held tightly in their hands.
"What's goin' on, Ed?" Bobby asked, his hand on his pistol. Edmund didn't say a word. He stared out into the blackness. "Whose screamin'?"
Then there was another scream, followed by several others—and much closer. Edmund thought that the screams sounded right on top of them. He held his lead pipe with both hands, his knuckles turning white and his face dripping with perspiration. The group waited, not saying a word. Only Bobby spoke, but his words had become jumbled and sounded like nothing more than the ramblings of a madman.
Dead grass crunched in the distance; a slight fog had settled over the field. The screams were growing louder and louder and closer and closer.
"What the fuck is that?" Bobby cried out, his voice high and shrill. A man turned to Bobby then, with a sick grin across his face and the look of pure lunacy in his eyes.
"It's them, buckoo. They're comin'," the man said, and chuckled crazily. He held a ball-point hammer in one hand and a hatchet in the other. "I'm goin' to cut em' up!" Bobby stumbled back away from the man and bumped into Edmund. He was getting frantic, and Edmund knew that now wasn't the time. He snatched Bobby up by his shirt collar and pulled him close to his face.
"Boy, you pull yourself together. Draw that six piece and you aim that son of bitch into the fog, and when they come don't stop shootin' until you ain't got a goddamn round left, you hear me? You hear me!" Edmund boomed. Bobby's lips began to quiver, and Edmund could feel his heart pounding as he held him close to him.
"Yessir!" Bobby cried out. Edmund let go then, and turned his attention back to the fog—back to the screams that were so close now. The sound of the crunching dead grass slowly drowned out Bobby's cries. Edmund could see him out of the corner of his eye, sobbing now.
Just suck it up, boy. You can do it, you must do it.
The screams crawled high into the sky. Edmund could feel his own heart pounding now. He was scared, oh yes, possibly as scared as Bobby. But he knew, he had learned, that being scared doesn't save you. It gets you killed.
Like the dead clerk. Like my mother. Like Bobby's father. Like many that serve on the Graveyard Shift. Like all the others—
As the fog began to clear and they emerged from within, Edmund held his lead pipe up high. He could hear Thomas now, yelling at them with his fierce battle cries that reminded Edmund of a Norse warrior.
"Oh my God!" Bobby screamed as they came—screaming like the voice of a thousand dying children.
"Aim that six piece, now! Shoot em' Bobby! Shoot em'!"
They screamed, the dead grass crunched, and the sound of Bobby's six shooter exploded into the air like dynamite. The harsh smell of gun powder filled Edmund's nose and he found it hard to breath—but worse than that, he smelled them. They smelled like rotten flesh, like decayed corpses, like death. They smelled like death.
Bobby's six shooter rang out again, and the screams were upon them.
• • •
Edmund sat down on the red milk crate at a quarter after nine o'clock. He pulled his thermal pod from his pack and filled up his coffee mug. He would need a couple of extra cups tonight, he supposed. The smell of noodles and pork being cooked at Ahmad's shack behind him filled his nose, but did not carry the same sweet smell as they might have on any other night before the shift. Why should he feel sad though?
I warned the boy—he just didn't listen.
Things were often this way, and Edmund had come to accept it. Perhaps not fully, but he supposed one day he would. He would come to accept the truth. He knew the truth, oh yes, and he always had.
Edmund White knew the truth, and the truth was this: folks die on the Graveyard Shift.